The Book Cooks
INTERVIEW WITH PAUL BLEY
The author interviewed Paul Bley, and briefly, Carol Goss, by e-mail, December 27, 2002.
AC: In spite of the free and unpredictable nature of your music, you are still very attached to certain patterns and typical phrases. How do you combine this with the idea of total improvisation having an obvious charm over you?
BLEY: Well, total improvisation just simply means that you’re not going to quote any known references. But, as for unknown references, you may quote all you like. It’s okay to steal, but only from oneself.
AC: The profound freedom of your music means also the freedom to sometimes prefer tradition to the avant-garde at all costs. My impression is that your relationship with tradition, especially with blues, is not at all ironic or purely instrumental, but really loving, a bit like that of Archie Shepp, for example. Could you comment on this somehow?
BLEY: Well, the blues is a very good point of departure to be able to play all forms of jazz. So when you play blues-oriented phrases you’re pretty certain that you will be on the jazz track. It helps if you spent the first part of your life in great pain and suffering. When I was very young I got a chance to play with Al Cowen’s Tramp Band, in which the musicians were from New York and were former sidemen with Duke Ellington and so forth. They came up to Montreal and did an act, a show business act, and I got to sit in with them before I knew how to play. Everything was blues for them.
AC: There are a number of key words to describe your music. One you explicitly use is “adventure.” By using this word do you simply refer to the taste for risking, making and playing music “without a net”, or are you generally attracted to the sense of mystery, the exploring of new lands, inherent in the meaning of this word?
BLEY: When you take risks, over time you develop a certain instinct and judgment. If the risks you take turn out to be useful and successful then you accumulate some of the knowledge of what to do in the case of a risk. So the percentage of failure drops and risk-taking is pretty much no longer that risky.
AC: You enjoy enveloping your notes and phrases in an aura of silence. Your compositions often conclude with long moments of apparent silence, in the anticipation for all the vibrations of one single note or accord to fade away. What is the function of this silence or, perhaps it is better to say, quasi-silence in your music?
BLEY: I’ve spent many years learning how to play as slow as possible and then many more years learning how to play as fast as possible. I’ve spent many years trying how to play as good as possible. At the present I’m trying to spend as many years learning how to play as bad as possible. Silence is just a frame around the next notes that are coming.
AC: Another key word suggested by you is “questions.” Your music is strongly interrogative. Maybe because your phrases, often being immersed into the spell of silence, do not sound affirmative but problematic, full of mystery. The discussion remains suspended, in a continuous tension. This has much to do with the traditions of jazz, but it also suggests a deep feeling of unrest. Is there any other reason why you like this word so much?
BLEY: If music is conversation then questions will come up because in conversation there are many questions that come up. Questions lead to answers, which lead to more questions. That is what makes the music continue: the questions and their answers.
My solo piano playing is a question in itself. The question is “why?”, and after “why?” comes “what?” and after “what?” comes “when?” So these questions are food for thought for the improvisation.
AC: Your music, in spite of being very expressive and lyrical, is not easily captured by feelings and more often demonstrates a certain aloofness. This is what I envy about you most of all because I am a strongly lyrical musician. A bit like Mozart, you are able to be expressive without being sentimental, to handle a special filter which enhances, purifies and crystallizes the expression and avoids falling into expressionism. Can you reveal some trick to achieve this?
BLEY: Every musical expression must be balanced with contrasting material. So that even if you are playing it super passionate and romantic, if balanced equally with intellectual content then you will be able to have the whole gamut of expression available.
AC: Your music can hardly be labeled. It is neither tonal, nor atonal, it is free and at the same time respecting tradition; it does not move within one determined tempo but continuously suggests the idea of tempo. It is discontinuous and continuous, cold and sentimental. How do you succeed in keeping firmly on the razor’s edge, without ever falling to one side or the other?
BLEY: When I’m playing I ask myself, as if I was looking down on the performance from a distance, what has been going on and when will it stop. So, duration becomes the most important element of my music. One can always be willing to go from one extreme to the other, but only in proper balance, so that you play something, and some feelings, to the point where the feelings have been expressed it’s time to now do the opposite, and do contrast. And that’s the way you avoid banality.
AC: You like to surprise and sometimes to provoke. This playful, joking and somewhat provocative side of your music surely comes from a disdain for a tedious, sterile or academic approach. It distinguishes you from the hyper-technical, precious, super serious kinds of jazz, which are now so popular. Is there any other motivation?
BLEY: Once again it’s a question of opposites. You should play like a child for awhile and then play like a philosopher for awhile. The two have value. They inform each other. Opposites inform each other. So whenever you see yourself doing anything, you want to think about how long you’ve been doing it, and when you’re going to do its opposite.
AC: Together with Carla Bley you were among the first to achieve the blending of jazz with other kinds of music. Today, in a time of “world music” or music that mixes different traditions, what do you think about so-called ethnic jazz?
BLEY: I was hoping for there to continue to be influence by other cultures and so far there has been a melding of the cultures by providing different rhythm sections from other cultures, and different instruments. In terms of a synthesis between jazz and other cultures, I think jazz has more to inform other cultures than vice versa.
AC: Many great jazz figures, like Bill Evans, Lenny Tristano or Keith Jarrett, have admitted their owing much to the sophisticated European avant-garde. You hardly ever mention this in your talks. Is it because you do not think you owe anything to Europe or because it simply stands to reason for you?
BLEY: I spend a lot of my time in Europe and most of my performances and recordings have been for European companies, so if anything, I’m in Europe representing North American culture and its meeting with Europe. My studies in Canada at the French and English conservatories allowed me to gain a working knowledge of the cultures of Europe and enabled me to define the difference between improvisation and written music. European musicians and written music are pretty much the opposite aesthetic of jazz, so if you invert the European tradition you have jazz. I’ve managed to play with almost everybody in Europe who is considered avant-garde and I don’t see that person so much as European or American but as individual talents. Genius doesn’t care about its passport.
AC: Among the great figures of so-called white jazz you are the one who has played the most with black musicians, participating in free sessions together with them. Do you think it still makes sense to distinguish between black and white jazz? If you do, to which extent would you refer yourself as one or the other?
BLEY: I don’t think it makes a lot of difference. What we’re really dealing with is the particular geniuses that have arisen over time. The great black jazz musicians have always said that the genius of the white jazz musicians has been an influence on their playing and I can also say, in my case, the influence of the great black musicians has been an influence on my playing.
AC: Before becoming a great leader, in your younger years, you had already worked with great musicians who are part of the history of jazz, such as Charlie Mingus, Art Blakey, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, and Bill Evans. Can you think of an example of this collaboration which has influenced your musical evolution?
BLEY: Playing with Charlie Parker showed me how much I didn’t know.
AC: Could you comment on your collaboration with Bill Evans and George Russell’s orchestra in Jazz in the Space Age? What kind of person was Bill Evans?
BLEY: Bill Evans had very big ears. He played my style better than I did.
AC: You have not played much in large groups, and in spite of having created a number of musical clubs and associations you have never formed an orchestra of your own. What is your relationship with the big band phenomenon in jazz? And what do you think about the relationship between the written score and the improvisation in a big band?
BLEY: The improviser is supposed to keep the written music ideas going during the solos.
AC: Can you, in a few words, describe your experience with the Jazz Composers Orchestra, the group that brought together nearly all the leaders of the free jazz movement, most notably on the 1964 LP, Communication? How was this recording made and what were your relations within the Jazz Composers Guild?
BLEY: The Jazz Composers’ Guild Orchestra misread all the written music, but improved on it.
AC: Which free style musicians, besides Ornette Coleman and Jimmy Giuffre, have influenced your music most of all?
BLEY: Cherry and Ayler.
AC: Could you name any less well-known musician, European or American, who in your opinion deserves more recognition and to whom you feel you owe something?
BLEY: Joe Maneri—tenor sax—American.
AC: In my book I have paid much attention to your concept of the classic piano trio. You definitely love this formation. In your own opinion, what have you contributed to the history of the piano trio and what is the difference between your idea of a trio and, for example, that of Bill Evans?
BLEY: I’ve tried to maintain all the advances of jazz, while adding the ability to also play them all free.
AC: In spite of being a great piano soloist, you recorded your first LP, Open, to Love, in 1972, when you were already quite a mature musician. Why did you choose to wait for so long?
BLEY: Manfred Eicher talked me into it.
AC: In spite of writing a remarkably melodious kind of music, and often accompanying your playing with your voice, you have not recorded much with singers. Is this a coincidence or is there an explanation for this? Which voices, among the ones you have worked with or not, have impressed you most?
BLEY: Sarah Vaughn, Sarah Vaughn, Sarah Vaughn...
AC: Of all the European, and especially Italian musicians you have played with, is there any one who has impressed you in a particular way? What is your opinion of Italian jazz?
BLEY: I love all Italian musicians. Italian Jazz is a winning combination.
AC: Is there any Italian musician with whom you have not yet worked and would like to?
BLEY: Enrico Rava, who I’ll play with in Vicenza May 20, 2003. Otherwise, I’ve played with most of the Italian musicians.
AC: In your autobiography you speak rather severely of the current teaching of jazz. Yet you have had vast experience as a teacher. Can you share some thoughts about this experience and your own antimethod of teaching?
BLEY: Musicians like to play jazz, and because of that they will improve. What they don’t like to do, and don’t know how to do, is get concerts.
AC: If you had had to choose a country where to live (obviously excluding the United States), due to its culture, the people, sensibility and lifestyle, which country would you choose?
BLEY: Two days Amsterdam; two weeks Paris; two months Rome.
[The last part of the interview was completed with Carol Goss]
AC: With Paul Bley you created some important music videos, whose execution followed a logic very similar to that of a musical improvisation. Can you say something about your idea of the relationship between image and music, perhaps extending the discussion to cinema and the music videos that are so popular today in commercial music?
GOSS: Paul and I began putting music and video art together in 1974. The music and the video are always made independently, unless it is a live performance. They are joined based on their length and it always works, syncs together. For example, “Lovers”, taken from Alone, Again, fit perfectly with my video Rings. They breathe together. Video art, electronically created, is beyond cinema. It is real-time animation paintings that move everything that the Italian futurists dreamt of… I read the history of animation Cartoon (written by an Italian) and I realized that all the abstract painters and cubists that made animated works, like Léger, felt very isolated. I too felt isolated. Not Still Art—a forum for artists working in abstract and non-narrative electronic motion imaging with music/sound design—was created completely on the Internet and through e-mail, to bring together the visual-musical abstract/non-narrative souls who exist everywhere but were not connected. We hear “I’m so happy to have found you” from all over the world. We have artists attend Not Still Art from everywhere. Last year a Japanese band that plays Turkish music came to New York for Not Still Art.